Health care aims to maintain and restore physical, mental, or emotional health. Health systems and their hospitals have a mission to improve and sustain the lives of their communities, including reducing the amount of waste produced by hospitals.
According to estimates, the U.S. healthcare system accounts for 8.5% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Of that 8.5%, more than a third of emissions come from hospitals. Climate change also affects personal health by causing more intense storms and greater temperature fluctuations throughout the year.
Hospitals minimize their impact on the environment to support the communities they serve.
Ascension St. Vincent Clay County in Middleburg is doing just that. The hospital, in collaboration with facility management partner Medxcel, implemented an award-winning waste reduction program as part of Ascension’s national sustainability efforts.
Organic waste is a significant and perhaps surprising emitter of greenhouse gases. The USDA estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s food supply ends up in landfills. A significant part of that is due to cosmetic standards, or agricultural products not being presented as consumers expect.
On Earth Day 2021, Ascension St. Vincent’s Clay County launched its “Unusual but Usable Produce” program. The program aimed to reduce waste from hospital cafeterias by distributing healthy food that might otherwise be thrown away due to its unsightly appearance.
However, not all food can be redistributed. Food waste also comes from leftover food that is generated during meal preparation, delivered to patients, or sold to guests or colleagues. For most of Ascension’s hospitals, this can amount to 15% of Ascension’s total municipal solid waste going to landfills.
Following pilots at other Ascension facilities, Medxel installed a food waste digester at Ascension St. Vincent’s Clay County location that uses organic microorganisms and oxygen to digest leftover food. Instead of going to a landfill and releasing powerful methane gas, the gray water produced by the digester is discharged to the local municipal sewage treatment plant.
Food waste digesters are a relatively low-cost tool to implement, making them especially attractive in locations where industrial composting options are not available. It also offers benefits beyond direct waste reduction. There are economic benefits as waste transportation costs are reduced. Depending on your current environmental services disposal process, you can minimize the risk of associated injuries. Reduce scope 3 carbon emissions from your value chain.
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Thanks in part to these two waste reduction programs, Ascension St. Vincent Clay County is on track to reduce municipal solid waste by 6% and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% systemwide from 2021 to 2023. directly contributed to the bold goals of
In recognition of Ascension St. Vincent Clay County’s role, the hospital has been named a 2023 Sustainability Champion by the American Society for Healthcare Engineering.
Medxcel has demonstrated that sustainability goals can be achieved through three key elements.
set a goal
Setting your initial goals is most important. Setting goals opens the door to collecting data, measuring results, and celebrating successes. When organizations realize their impact, their expectations increase and they can begin to aim higher.
Organizational leaders must be champions of sustainability efforts. Enthusiasm across the leadership team leads to scalable support across the system to move the needle toward meeting and exceeding sustainability goals.
Whether this is done through a green team, a chairperson passionate about sustainability, or a group of team members who simply advocate for recycling, employee buy-in is just as important as leader support. Setting goals at the leadership level will encourage green team members to learn more and is an ideal opportunity to involve all employees across the organization in the program. Companies that are most committed to sustainability offer both expertise and enthusiasm that their colleagues embrace.
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Hospitals and health systems that reduce waste sent to landfills benefit the environment globally and build healthier communities for the people they serve. When healthcare leaders prioritize waste reduction efforts, they positively impact local public health while also contributing to larger environmental efforts.
When the larger medical community works together, we can achieve our environmental goals.
Dan Scher, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Sustainability at Medxcel, and Bruce Warner, Performance Improvement Manager at Ascension Florida.
This guest column represents the author’s opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the Times Union. We welcome diverse opinions.